I ran down to Chinatown yesterday and visited the Barnes & Noble on 12th Street. I walked around, caught my breath, and scoped out a few books which had caught my interest. Then, as I was leaving, I noticed a sign detailing a new return policy.
Apparently, the entire chain now only accepts returns within 14 days, and then, only with a receipt. I stopped to ask a clerk why they had made the change, and she explained that many retail stores (not just those which sold books) were going to this model — B&N just felt the need to keep up with current trends. She did tell me about one exception, however — books received as gifts can be returned within 30 days so long as there is a gift receipt.
On the whole, this is an awful policy — one which only serves to hurt the store’s best customers.
Books aren’t like other some other commodities; one sold at Store A will have the exact same content as one sold at Store B. It’s not as if B&N faces a wave of people trying to return knockoff versions of the new John Grisham novel.
Barnes & Noble is a powerful chain — with a massive, efficient infrastructure which allows it to set prices for its best sellers as low as it wants them. There surely isn’t some epidemic of costumers attempting to make a profit by returning books bought with steeper discounts at other places.
Most bookstores only accept returns that are in new condition — that means the spine must be unbroken, the pages clean, the cover crisp. I can’t imagine that B&N is facing a horde of bibliophiles who are using the store as a personal library, buying scores of books and then returning them upon completion.
I’d love to read a good reason for this change, but even considering how much time I spend with books, in bookstores, I’m struggling to come up with one. This just seems like a big chain that doesn’t care about the convenience of its costumers at all.
Forcing someone to have a receipt, even for a book that has been given as a gift, is certainly within the rights of the store, but it seems unnecessary and mean-spirited. More obnoxious still is the fact that fourteen days is an undeniably short window of time to arrange for a return if a book is unwanted but an awfully long period of time in which to keep up with a slip of paper.
For many costumers this might not be a big deal. For those who read the most, however, I can promise that it will pose problems. A true bibliophile always run the risk of discovering that she has just bought a copy of a book that already exists in her library. Her friends always run the risk of gifting a duplicate.
I’ve tried to defend the chain bookstore in the past. They offer neighborhoods all across this country a wealth of resources and knowledge that would have seemed unbelievable just a few decades in the past. They lower the barriers of access, and through competition with each other, make books more affordable. In many ways, they are a remarkable cultural innovation. But actions like this make it hard for me to keep singing their praises.
The book business is on the cusp of some fundamental changes.
Amazon has already brought about significant shifts in the business model — driving down consumer costs even more, opening up a back catalogue of every book in print, offering used booksellers a marketplace that reaches a seemingly-infinite number of customers.
With the release of the Kindle, the web company is well on its way to something even more revolutionary. Others have released electronic book devices in the past. Some have even had a measure of success. None, though, comes close to the Kindle. It’s not a pretty device, but months after its release, there is still a waiting list to get access to it. The pricing and access to new releases are both awesome. Even more importantly, you can buy new books instantly and anywhere. And, of course, using the Kindle, you can carry hundreds of books everywhere, all the time.
I already buy many of my books from Amazon. I’m probably less than a year away from making an investment in a Kindle or a comparable gadget (come on Apple, let’s see what you’ve got). Policies like those of Barnes & Noble are pushing me to choose a digital future faster than I otherwise would. And I’m a guy who easily buys 100 books a year. All of which leaves me to wonder — what kind of future do the chain stores have?